This is a subject that is of increasing concern to me as communities across Britain battle to preserve open spaces. In Cardiff the Central square is now a huge building site. It feels threatening, the metal monsters rising where once was windswept bus shelters and skateboarders and people able to catch sight of the sky.
The British are different to Europeans in lots of ways, but one of the most important is they have never been promenaders. Except during the Georgian period when John Wood father and son developed Bath as a major resort, with wide clean streets for people to see and be seen, as in Pall Mall etc in London.
Open spaces are vital for healthy communities in so many ways – for starters for physical and mental health, so best if surrounded by greenery. But they are also places where we see our neighbours, see different social groups at ease, to be aware of how diverse our towns and cities are. To put faces on people who are normally glanced through bus or car windows.
Part of the appeal of groups like the Ramblers is the chance to chat to strangers as you walk. You can choose who you speak with, you can walk with them or not. It is all commitment free, so you can also have time to yourself.
Richard Linklater has produced a trio of small but perfectly formed films based upon a couple walking, in Before Sunrise, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy’s characters spend the night wandering round Vienna; they begin as complete strangers, Jessie, a young American filling time before his return home, Delpy’s Cecile as his guide to the city. They walk, they talk, they fall in love.
Walking in public is probably the best way to do this. Walking together you you harmonise your gait, perhaps your breathing; you notice things without being aware of it. You can talk, or be silent together. It’s organic. Anything can happen, especially at night in a strange city. Linklater has done 2 sequels to this, maybe there will be more. We grow older in parallel with his characters. We observe, we compare them with ourselves. We learn about life just as the characters do.
I am still bingeing on Hill Street Blues. One of my favourite parts of it is the romance between growly detective Mick Belcker and smily young Robin. Their first date ends with him walking her home. They pause at her door, uncertain as to whether to go in. She suggests they walk round the block again. They need a little more time, a little more talking. But we know. They are just delaying, and yet it’s all part of the learning,the romance.
In Betty Edwards’ book ‘Drawing with the Right Side of Your Brain’ she talks of left/right brain differences, with the logical part on the left, instincts on the right. In order to tap into your creative side, it helps to distract your logical side. When playing tennis, say bounce when the ball bounces, helps you hit the ball better. Walking is physical. It occupies the logical part of your brain, allowing you to focus more clearly on your feelings. It worked for Jessie and Cecile.